The aim of this work was to compare the characteristics of three methods, membrane inlet mass spectrometry (MIMS), purge-and-trap gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (P&T) and static headspace gas chromatography (HSGC), for the determination of volatile organic compounds in water samples as used in routine analysis. The characteristics examined included linear dynamic ranges, detection limits of selected environmentally hazardous volatile organic compounds (e.g. toluene, benzene and trichloroethene) in water, required analysis time and reproducibility of the analytical methods. The MIMS and P&T methods had the lowest detection limits for all the tested compounds, ranging from 0.1 to 5 μg 1−1. Linear dynamic ranges using the MIMS method were about four orders of magnitude and using the P&T method about two orders of magnitude. Detection limits of the HSGC method were 10–100 times higher than those of the other two methods, but the linear dynamic ranges were larger, even up to six orders of magnitude. The analysis time per sample was shortest for the MIMS method, from 5 to 10 min, and ranged around from 35 to 45 min for the HSGC and P&T methods. The reproducibilities of the methods were of the same order of magnitude, in the range of 1–13%. Agreement between the analytical results obtained for spiked samples and for environmental water samples by the three different methods was very good.